Tuesday, 17 November 2015

10 Ways The Beatles Have Radically Changed My Songwriting

Welcome to my 500th post! It's almost 6 years since I starting blogging through the Beatles back catalogue and I have something special to share with you. One of my favourite songwriters on the planet, Simon Curd from Mountain Schmountain, asked me what effect studying the Beatles has had on my own songwriting.

A lot of songwriting tips are speculative (even here on BSA) “here kid try this! It may work!” But these are ten things I learned from the Beatles that have had a profound effect on my own writing - and I have the songs to prove it!

1) Use the minor 4 chord

In the key of A major it would be Dm. Effective sneaking up from a D major or just going straight for it. It wasn't in my tool box originally, but now my hand naturally gravitates towards it. It appears in I Got Lost, Djimi Traore, Bullingdon Boys, Tonight and many others.

2) Repeat lyrics, lyric structures and whole verses

I used to feel like I was short changing people if I even repeated a single word, let alone a whole section. Now I see that was part of what made Beatles songs sticky. Let's Build An Airport even repeats the first verse twice!

3) Write a lot

I used to think true songwriters slaved over a song till it was perfect. But the Beatles rarely did that. They just wrote lots of songs. Around 250 in 7 years! Before BSA I generally finished 5 per year. Maybe 1 song was great but I'd slaved over it so much that I hated it anyway. Doing BSA (along with FAWM and First Tuesday) mean I write around 30 - 50 songs a year now. That would mean 6 - 10 really good songs per year, but I think my batting average has gone up. Writing more means I'm getting better.

4) Work on one song at a time 

Standard practice in the music biz is to record songs in bulk, one instrument at a time. People as diverse as Max Martin and the Foo Fighters create a completely recorded tracks before contemplating a vocal line. The Beatles NEVER worked that way. They almost always finished each track before moving on to the next one. This working method allowed them to become more adventurous and musically diverse - temporarily immersing yourself in another genre can almost feel like a holiday from real work.

5) OOKCs are OK

Out of key chords - I've always loved them. But when I attempted to be melodic or commercial (especially when I was writing for Church congregations) I forced myself to be diatonic. But the most melodic and commercial band in history hardly ever remained 100% 'in key'. Permission granted!

6) Stay off chord tones in the vocal melody 

This was another place where experimentation was discouraged, especially for a hesitant singer like me. I hugged those chord tones like a warm, fuzzy comfort blanket. But John Lennon rode those 2nds, 6ths and 4ths for all they were worth (check out the chorus of Help) and still sounded melodic. In a similar way I thought singing blue notes (the flattened 3rd, 5th and 7th) was only acceptable in  blues-type songs, but tracks like From Me To You showed me it was OK to do it over regular major chords and now, with a bit of practice, it's another tool in my box.

7) Trim off the fat

My default intro was the verse chords twice. BORING! So many Beatles tunes didn't have an intro at all. Many finished with a single ringing chord. Others had no solo. Or bridge. So now I'm more comfortable leaving my listeners wanting more. If they want to hear the chorus again all they have to do is hit repeat.

8) Create new sections from your chorus 

I learned 'exposition – development – recapitulation' studying Beethoven at school, but never really understood how to make it work in a pop context. But a closer look at She Loves You and Help, and the scales fell from my eyes! I've learned to fashion intros, outros and solos from the material in my choruses. The songs hang together better and my listener subliminally learn the choruses before they even hear them (bwah hah hah!).

9) There's more to life than Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Bridge, Chorus, Chorus

Structurally pop music has been in a massive rut since the mid-sixties. The Beatles grew up on blues, folk and showtune forms and wrote in the AABA structure almost exclusively for the first 3 or 4 albums. I'm starting a campaign to bring it back. Join me!

10) Get rid of the deadbeats

John Lennon was always impatient to get to the next line. Why bother strumming (and counting) that extra beat? Cut it out! (see All You Need Is Love's verse). I used this freedom on Fingernails. And when I found it difficult to squeeze the chorus of Everything In The World Is Fighting Everything In The Sky into 4/4 I felt 'St John' was looking down on my smiling and giving me permission to just 'Let It Be'.

So what about you? Whether you've been around for months or years, what effect has the Beatles songwriting had on your own writing? Leave me a comment!

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